A recently developed method for estimating the variability of nucleotide sites in a sequence alignment [Van de Peer, Y., Van der Auwera, G. and De Wachter, R. (1996) J. Mol. Evol. 42, 201-210] was applied to bacterial 16S, 5S and 23S rRNAs. In this method, the variability of each nucleotide site is defined as its evolutionary rate relative to the average evolutionary rate of all the nucleotide sites of the molecule. Spectra of evolutionary rates were calculated for each rRNA and show the fastest evolving sites substituting at rates more than 1000 times that of the slowest ones. Variability maps are presented for each rRNA, consisting of secondary structure models where the variability of each nucleotide site is indicated by means of a colored dot. The maps can be interpreted in terms of higher order structure, function and evolution of the molecules and facilitate the selection of areas suitable for the design of PCR primers and hybridization probes. Variability measurement is also important for the precise estimation of evolutionary distances and the inference of phylogenetic trees.